Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 7:47 pm | Fair 64º


Ken Williams: Breaking Through Barriers to Reach Out to Homeless

Pain and despair often consume those on the streets suffering from mental illness

“Micky” no longer has her shopping cart. No longer does she have all of her worldly possessions with her. No, that’s wrong — she does. Unfortunately, her worldly possessions are now reduced to the clothes she wears and a small plastic bag of stuff that is in her hand. Her deeply brown, leathery face watches me as I stare at the bag trying to imagine what I would have in it if those were all the things I now owned.

“What happened to your cart?” I ask her.

“Someone took it. I left it alone only for a moment. Maybe a security guard?” Pain leaks from her voice, which is strained with resignation. After all, she has been here before — alone, deposed of all material things.

“Can I help you with a McDonalds card?” I offer.

“No, thank you.”

I forgot. She is a very finicky eater. She buys food usually at the farmers market or health food stores — that is, when she eats at all. I remember another time when we stood in the rain and I offered her a poncho. She turned it down because she didn’t want plastic to touch her skin. There are so many rules, delusional boundaries when dealing with the mentally ill who are unhoused, unsheltered and untreated that sometimes I find it difficult to keep up with them all. I slip her $5 and she pays me back with a smile that cracks her despair and pain.

I walk up to another homeless woman who struggles alone with her mental illness. I again ask her if she wants help applying for SSI. She smiles, casts her eyes down, allowing her long brown hair that is turning gray streak by streak to hide her face. “No,” again the answer comes, as it has many times before. It is also, as usual, framed by a girlish giggle. She, unlike Micky, accepts the meal card. I hope she uses it.

My eyes do a quick inventory of her cart. I see the days-old bread. No telltale signs of mold yet. I remember a few months back when she stopped eating because she was sick. Back then she couldn’t remember when she had last eaten. Dr. J and I exchanged concerned looks and received assurances that she would eat if I gave her the meal card. Walking away, I made a mental note to check up on her welfare the next day.

Now months later I again walk away trying not to let my imagination run wild. Where and when will these two women leave the hell of the streets behind? What are the magic phrases, the mythical words that will allow me to have the breakthrough when they will allow me to help them? When they do, which, if any, shelter will take them in? And for how long? How long until the symptoms of their illness make them too hard to handle and they find themselves back on the streets? When does this ongoing nightmare end?

Tragedy strikes the next day in the early morning hours — on State Street at 7:55 a.m. exactly. I was out warning the sleepy homeless of the approaching and potentially deadly cold storm, informing them of the warming center and providing foul weather gear. My cell phone rings. I answer it, only to find it is the shelter. A homeless man had called and left a message for me. He asked that it be passed along immediately.

According to the caller, there was a body along the railroad tracks close to Sherry’s old camp. They said it was “Lucky.” My heart sinks. I’d like to say that my stomach turned to stone, but I doubt if stone could feel that much pain. Lucky was a friend, someone I had known for years. I call the police and arrange to meet and guide them to the camp.

It’s ironic walking along the tracks as I have often done in the past. The difference this time is that my companions wear uniforms. For once I didn’t have to worry about getting a ticket.

We find Lucky’s camp. It is tucked into some bushes that we had to wiggle our way in. After doing so, I find myself standing over the poor man. His stilled eyes stare off into space as if he had been looking at death when he had entered camp and came looking for him.

Lucky was a kind man with a wicked sense of humor who struggled with failing health for far too long. He told me once that he had picked up his street name after all of his close friends had died. He and others felt that he was lucky to be alive when they had all passed on.

Lucky’s luck, tragically, finally ran out.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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